April 24, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Old heresies never die

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

Here in the 21st century, almost 2,000 years after Jesus lived on Earth, Christians are still trying to figure out just who he was. In the process, many of them—Catholics and Protestants—could be considered heretics.

The early Church councils defined what Christians are supposed to believe. They taught that Jesus was both God and man, that he had both a divine and human nature but was only one person, that he always existed as God the Son, that he is equal to God the Father, that he was born as a human, that he died and rose again, that he ascended into heaven, and that he will come again.

The problems came in trying to decide how all that could be. Some very sincere men slipped into heresies when they tried to explain who Jesus was. And some of the ideas they came up with seem to continue today.

There still are those who believe that Jesus was a great man, but deny that he was God. That’s an obvious heresy since, as we’ve seen in this series, the doctrine that the Second Person of the Trinity came to Earth as a human without ceasing to be divine is the very basis of Christianity.

Others believe that he was the Son of God, but not really equal to God the Father. They have the idea that God the Father created God the Son, which is the old heresy of Arianism.

Others don’t think of God the Son as Creator, assigning that attribute solely to God the Father, despite what the Creed says (“Through him all things were made”) or what John’s Gospel says: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). Some people, in fact, think of God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier as if there were three gods instead of one.

There are still Christians who believe that Mary was the mother only of Jesus the man and should not be called mother of God—the heresy of Nestorianism. But Christ was only one person, not two. If Mary was the mother of that person and if that person was God, then Mary was the mother of God.

Today, too, some Christians question Jesus’ complete humanity—the old heresy of Monophysitism. They give lip service to the statement from the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was “a man like us in all things but sin,” but they have trouble thinking, for example, that he really was subject to illness or fatigue, all the humbling human bodily functions, or the sexual desires and temptations that all men have (Heb 4:15).

Those who think that Jesus was somehow not subject to all the things that make one a human might be guilty of Docetism, the heresy that taught that Christ merely assumed the appearance of a human body.

There are many other old heresies still around, but the ones that I’ve mentioned concern Christ.

It seems that old heresies never die. Nor, like old generals, do they fade away. †

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